The trip to an in-form Aston Villa was always going to be a big test for Potter’s so far frustrated Albion side. With a run of tough games against Liverpool, Southampton and Leicester to follow and only six points so far accumulated from their first eight games you could easily see the pressure quickly mounting on Potter if results didn’t start going Albion’s way.
As I’ve been reiterating since his appointment, I hope Potter gets the time to turn these impressive intentions and subsequently impressive performances of late into the results the team deserve, but I do wonder how much patience he will be afforded if relegation worries mount. Especially in such uncertain times economically for the club, its industry and the country as a whole.
These circumstances made Albion’s victory and the dramatic way it was achieved through a VAR overturn of an Aston Villa penalty in injury time even sweeter. In the context of Albion’s season this win feels huge and eases the pressure caused by the run of frustrating results which preceded it.
Yes, we got a little lucky in the end, but regardless it was a brilliant performance all round. And it was a result that saw Albion under Potter continue to break new ground whose first ever win at Villa Park saw Albion now register its sixth Premier League away win under his management. One more than the five achieved at home in that time and one more than the five away wins achieved in the Premier League under Hughton.
In particular, the first full 90 minutes from Albion’s new striker Danny Welbeck was a true highlight. He gave Albion’s attack an extra dimension with an ability to play direct and long effectively whilst also being happy with the more common approach of patient short passing out of the back. With Albion’s two goals perfectly demonstrating this newfound variety in attack.
It gives the opposition lots to think about. If you press Albion high, they now have a dangerous long ball outlet they can hit to catch you out. If you sit back, you give players like Dunk and White the time and space that opponents can ill afford, enabling them to pass the ball about into dangerously areas. Particularly in the direction of Lamptey and March at Wing Back who have been consistently effective in attack so far this season.
So, the loss of Lamptey for Liverpool to suspension is disappointing, who according to Richard Jolly on Twitter became the shortest player ever to be sent off in the Premier League. Dan Burn has been great when called upon in reserve at left wing back this season, so don’t be surprised if Albion call upon their tallest player to replace him in the starting eleven next time out, with March switching to replace Lamptey at right wing back. That said, Potter’s team selections are rarely predictable.
But there were more positives than negatives. And Pascal Gross’s new found success in Graham Potter’s midfield three has been a joy to behold. Gross played in a deeper role alongside Bissouma and behind Lallana in the first half to great effect. But when Lallana’s tight groin once again saw him fail to complete the 90 minutes, Gross was pushed further forward with Ben White dropping into the midfield. And Gross showed his class and composure in the final third by picking out Solly March with a fantastic assist for Albion’s sublime winner.
It was a game which gave another example of Albion’s strength in depth. With a number of first team players out through injury Potter was still able to name a strong bench that enabled him to make some important alterations during the game that assisted the teams victory.
In particular, Lalana’s replacement Joel Veltman was fantastic in the second half at centre back. Composed and assured in possession whilst also fierce and combative in defence. A performance in his fifth league appearance of the season that will no doubt keep others on their toes.
One of those many players missing was Davy Pröpper, who returned to the injury list after his recent spell as an unused substitute in the last two matches. Thankfully his absence wasn’t due to a recurrence of his Achilles injury but a stomach bug.
His absence and recent return to the matchday squad has gone largely unremarked. Fitting for a player who is in my opinion the club’s most underrated player of Albion’s Premier League era. And after a run of good performances but frustrating results was ended by a good result despite a mixed performance, I feel more strongly that the Dutchman could be Albion’s missing piece of puzzle.
With Lallana’s continued struggles for fitness recently seeing Graham Potter turn to central defender Ben White to play in central midfield to retain the defensive balance which it has at times struggled to achieve this season. A fact demonstrated by the 15 goals conceded in 9 games, a goals conceded per game ratio higher than that of any of Brighton’s previous three Premier League seasons.
Pröpper’s impending return could solve this issue who is arguably Albion’s most rounded midfield player, both providing quality in attacking areas (as demonstrated by his 7 Premier League assists over the last 3 seasons) and resilience in defence (as demonstrated by being involved in 18 Premier League clean sheets in 100 games, compared to Bissouma’s 3 in 58).
Either way his impending return adds extra competition to an area of the pitch that is already congested following impressive performance from Bissouma, Lallana, Alzate, Gross and White, along with the young prospect Jayson Molumby, who made his Premier League debut against Villa as a late substitute.
This is a win that has changed the perspective of the season so far. A performance built on defensive resilience more than possession football, further demonstrating Graham Potter’s adept tactical fluidity.
The great performances of late not leading to many points being accumulated may have increased the anxiety levels and pressure on Potter from outside of the club prior to the win at Villa. But the message from inside the club appears to be that he’s the man for the long-term come what may. Which has no doubt helped that anxiety not to spread to those within the club.
Ultimately though it’s a win that leaves Albion 6 points clear of the relegation zone, but 4 points below the top half, once again marooned in that mid-bottom-half league position that has become very familiar to Albion fans since promotion in 2017. But as 2020 begins to draw towards a close, a year that has been tough both on and off the pitch, events of the last two weeks have certainly helped ease much of the growing anxiety and pressure that has been accumulating since the start of the season.